Christians in the Middle East — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:49 am on 9th December 2011.

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Photo of The Bishop of Exeter The Bishop of Exeter Bishop 10:49 am, 9th December 2011

My Lords, a year ago I had the privilege of attending a synod of Catholic bishops in Rome called by the Pope to consider this very topic of Christians in the Middle East. One hundred and eighty-five bishops took part, 140 came from the Middle East. For the first time, Arabic was one of the working languages of the synod, although to hear languages such as Armenian, Syriac, Kurdish, Assyrian and Persian spoken in the corridors was to be reminded of the, at times, forgotten trans-ethnicity of Middle Eastern Christianity, and indeed of the region as a whole. It was a reminder of just how deeply embedded, and how widely spread, across the region the Christian church may be found-across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen, there are to be found Christian churches that have been there for a very long time, many of them from long before Islam.

It was in the Middle East that the first Christian community was born. From there, the apostles after Pentecost evangelised the whole world. There the early Christian community formed the structures and liturgies that mark the worldwide church today. There the martyrs, with their blood, fortified the foundations of the growing Christian church. After them, the hermits filled the deserts with the perfume of their holiness and their faith. There the scholars of the eastern church lived and continued to nourish the church in both the east and west through their teachings. In the early centuries and later, missionaries from these ancient churches departed for the Far East and the West, taking with them the light of Christ. Today's Middle Eastern Christians are deeply conscious of being the heirs of that heritage, and they have every intention of continuing to be faithful to it.

The whole region, depending on how you define it, has around 356 million people, of whom about 20 million are Christian, around 6 percent of the whole. That may justify speaking numerically of a Christian minority, but not only is this a term that many Christians in the area would rather avoid, it is also somewhat unhelpful where history has left almost every community-Muslims, Christians, Jews; Arabs, Kurds, Copts, Israelis, Palestinians and Turks-seeing themselves, with some justification, as a minority, depending on the context in which they are being viewed.

In Rome, I was particularly struck by one of the great themes of the synod becoming immediately apparent on day one, as speaker after speaker, in their introductory remarks, spoke about the importance of religious freedom seen, not as the special pleading for the region's embattled Christians, but as the cornerstone of a healthy democratic society, and as a universal cause to be pursued for the good of all, Muslim, Christian and Jew alike. One of the first speakers was Patriarch Antonios Naguib of the Egyptian Coptic church, and interestingly, given that the events of the Arab spring, Tunisia and Tahrir Square, were not then even a stirring in the wind, he chose to underline the importance of freedom of conscience-not so much as a right to be claimed for Christians but, instead, a universal right, which Christians and Muslims defend together for the common good. He also called the rise of political Islam across the Middle East,

"a threat which we must face together", by which he meant not just the diverse Christians of the region, but also Muslims and Jews.

While radical Islam is sometimes styled as a special threat to the Christians of the Middle East, it is worth remembering that in terms of raw numbers, the primary victims of religious extremism in the Muslim world are other Muslims. In that context, the case for religious freedom as an essential component of human rights is a project that Christians and many Muslims and Jews can share. But it is very important that such religious freedom includes both freedom of worship and freedom of conscience. That is an important distinction in many majority Muslim states, where Christians are generally allowed to worship openly, but where conversion from Islam to Christianity or any other religion is often prohibited. Even when there is no legal impediment to conversion, social and cultural pressures generally make it a perilous choice. This then leads to a situation in which Christians have a sense of being considered non-citizens, despite the fact that they have called these countries home long before Islam.

It is important to stress that across the Middle East we find a wide variety of countries, and so a wide variety of churches and Christian communities too. They are not a monolithic entity, and it is very unhelpful when they are regarded as so. They have in most places been deeply embedded in the culture of the context of which they are a part, for much of history sharing as much, if not more, with their Muslim and Jewish neighbours, as they have with Christians elsewhere.

I take two towns in the vicinity of Bethlehem that I know well, Beit Jalal and Beit Sahour. Back in the early 1970s it would have been very difficult to tell Christians and Muslims apart, at least in terms of many social customs, intermingling of families, support for one another's festivals and styles of dress. Now all that has changed: the different communities have withdrawn into themselves; the differences are plain to see, and there is worrying polarisation when once there was a common life. Why has this come about? Partly it is in response to local political and security initiatives, but also partly as a response to western military intervention and political rhetoric referring to the region as a whole, together with unhelpful and caricatured portrayals of both communities by western academics as well as the popular media-and also, I have to admit, newer styles of western evangelism and Christian mission, all of which have assisted to push communities apart. Once polarised, reintegration is not so easily achieved.

It really would be helpful to people of all religions across the region if we in the West were a little more ready to recognise our responsibility for what is to be found across much of the Middle East today. It is very easy to forget, given the prominence of Islam in much of public life across much of the Middle East today, just how secular that region was even 30 years ago. In all but the most conservative Gulf states, western fashions were preferred over traditional dress; many people drank alcohol openly in disregard of official prohibition-whether that is a good thing or not-and men and women mixed freely in the workplace, as more and more women were entering higher education and professional life.

In the wake of the Arab spring, I hear much concern being expressed about Islamification and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. Again I find it cautionary to remember that the Brotherhood had its roots partly in the response by European powers to earlier attempts across the former Ottoman empire to achieve a form of secular democracy immediately after the First World War. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon a push, generally with strong support from the grass roots, including women, for a multiparty parliamentary democracy, was firmly crushed, particularly by Britain, France and Italy, while sectarian identity was cynically fostered as a means of sustaining colonial rule. All of this has left a bitter taste but also an aspiration for a more authentically Arab or Middle Eastern style of democracy and, with each new western intervention, there is an exacerbation of the problem facing many Middle Eastern Christians, which is a tendency in the Muslim street to identify them with the West and the policy choices of western governments, even when such policies are not supported by the churches here or there. Yet, for the most part, in most places, the Christian churches remain deeply committed to playing their part in working for religious pluralism, dialogue and mutual respect. However, they cannot be expected to do this on their own.

One of the most significant addresses to that synod in Rome came from David Rosen, adviser to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Christians, he noted, play,

"a disproportionate role in promoting interreligious understanding", in the region, but it is,

"not fair to expect the small local Christian communities to be capable of bearing such responsibility alone".

He is right. They need our understanding, free of stereotypes and simplistic assumptions, and for that understanding to be translated into so many of the policies that impact on that region's life.